Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Patricia Stoughton leads us through the soft landscapes of Brittany to discover a local initiative that showcases local saints. La Vallée des Saints (Traonienn ar Sant in Breton) is a bold statement about the enduring importance of regional culture and identity.

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You could be forgiven for a flash of surprise when arriving at La Vallée des Saints in Carnoët, Brittany, to find that the site is actually on the top of a hill. A beautiful rounded hill like an island among undulating waves of green, covered in wild flowers during springtime and dotted with over 50 striking granite sculptures. Every figure is at least three to four metres high, its face gazing out at the countryside below and far into the distance beyond.

There will be more, for the plan is to bring the number of sculptures up to one thousand by the end of the century. Then there will be a statue representing every known Breton saint, whether recognised by Rome or not — a monumental undertaking described by Philippe Abjean, at the heart of the initiative, “like building a cathedral”: a long-term project lasting for generations.

Tides of Celtic monks fleeing persecution by the Angles and Saxons in the British Isles, flowed across the Channel, bringing Christianity to Brittany and indelibly marking both history and legend in the area. Most settled in the fifth and sixth centuries, setting up communities which adopted and unofficially sanctified their names. Many of these can be still traced today in the names of villages and hamlets as well as in larger towns such as Saint-Malo, Saint-Brieuc and Saint-Pol-de-Léon. And over the years edifying stories of their lives were passed from generation to generation in time-honoured oral tradition. “They are the core of our Breton mythology,” explains Abjean “and by creating the Vallée des Saints we’re saving our popular culture.”

Tides of Celtic monks fleeing persecution by the Angles and Saxons in the British Isles, flowed across the Channel, bringing Christianity to Brittany and indelibly marking both history and legend in the area.

Talking in the kitchen of one of the several stone outbuildings belonging to the farm just below the hill, I can see that saving Breton culture is very close to Abjean’s heart, particularly its religious heritage. He’s no separatist but aware that Breton religious traditions had gradually been subsumed by the French after the Duchy of Brittany became part of France in 1532, and particularly after the Revolution in the late eighteenth century, Abjean was determined to do something about it. In 1990 he organized a symposium and an exhibition of church banners to mark the 1500th anniversary of Saint Pol Aurélian in the town of Saint-Pol-de-Léon. In 1994 he turned his attention to the seven saints credited with the founding of Brittany — Brieuc, Malo, Samson, Patern, Corentin, Pol Aurélien, and Tugdual — by reviving a pilgrimage known in the Middle Ages as the Pèlerinage des Sept-Saints de Bretagne.

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Dividing her time between London and Brittany, Patricia is a journalist and photographer specializing in French culture and history. She has written for French regional daily, Ouest-France and has been writing over many years for France and Living France magazines.

She also writes for a number of other publications including regular features for Church Building & Heritage Review and Best of British Magazine. Her work reflects her interest in Franco-British cross-cultural influences and shared history.

Having written for History Today on WWI heroine Louise de Bettignies, who spied for the British, she developed her research and took part in the documentary ‘The Spies Who Loved Folkestone’, an episode of the BBC series ‘World War I at Home’, featuring a section on de Bettignies.

In 2008 Patricia was dubbed a Chevalière de la Tour de Saint-Amand-les-Eaux, northern France, in recognition for her work on de Bettignies and artist Pierre Lorthioir, both natives of the town.

She can often be seen on the South Bank of the Thames with her camera recording street performers, skateboarders and life around the river.

This article was published in hidden europe 45.